There is now no doubt which Pinellas public school programs are most popular. This year for the first time, students applying for fundamental, magnet and other programs had to rank their choices. The results are unambiguous: From kindergarten through high school, far more students and parents made the back-to-basics fundamental schools their No. 1 choice than the district can accommodate. That is not a ringing endorsement of parents' confidence in the quality of other public schools, but district officials should create more fundamental seats.
In an era of tough budget cuts, the district must make the best use of its scarce dollars. Adding seats to programs that are popular and inexpensive — such as fundamentals — makes sense. So does looking at cutting back some "attractor" programs that have had years to work out kinks and aren't attracting even enough students to fill the available seats. It's time to take a hard look at what is working and what is not.
Last year, the district tracked students who applied for fundamentals but did not get in. Officials discovered that 40 percent of those students fled the public school system altogether, leaving the district without the good example those pupils would have set in the classroom, the involved parents they likely have and the tax dollars the district receives for every student it enrolls. It makes sense to meet more of this need.
And yet the School Board has failed to do so, for example, voting 4-3 late last year against superintendent Julie Janssen's idea to re-open Kings Highway Elementary as a fundamental this year. And then some members chastised her for broaching the topic again this month — she suggested reopening two elementaries as fundamentals — after application numbers made the demand crystal clear.
Still, it's also important to understand what's really underlying the cry for fundamental schools. They offer no special programs or amenities, which means fundamentals are really just schools with a seriousness of purpose and without discipline problems — in other words, the kind of school that should be the norm and that every parent would like.
So while it's necessary to acknowledge the demand for more fundamental openings by creating some more seats, the district should be cognizant of the risk of creating a two-tiered system of fundamental schools for involved families and lesser schools for others. It's just as important to make the rest of the schools better following many of those same basic principles.
Because almost no fundamental schools provide bus transportation — and even that might change with budget cuts — it is vital to add fundamental seats where poorer students can easily reach them. Madeira Beach, now a combined K-8 fundamental, is wildly popular (241 kindergarten applicants for 72 seats; 431 sixth-grade applicants for 249 seats). But the chances are slim that a poor, black student from Midtown can get there. If the School Board ponders how and where to add fundamental seats, it should focus first on schools in the county's highest poverty areas.